We’ve all encountered herdbound horses from time to time, and it can be a frustrating experience. As humans, we tend to take it a little personally when a horse decides he’d rather stay with his herd than hang out with us. Anger can creep in – “Why is that horse so darn stubborn?” – and sometimes even self-doubt, as in, “What am I doing wrong? Does my horse not trust me?” Sound familiar? I imagine there are plenty of you reading this and nodding your heads in agreement.
Before we get into strategies for overcoming herdbound tendencies, it’s important to understand why horses can become herdbound.
Let’s never forget that, in addition to being prey animals, horses are herd animals. They value safety above all else (more on that in a bit). This is part of their DNA; they seek safety, and to them, the herd equals safety. Horses are also a precocial species, meaning that they are full-faculty learners at birth. One of the first things they learn to do is identify not only their mother but the herd as well. It’s for this reason that proper foal imprinting can be so effective. If we imprint correctly, it can lead a young horse to perceive us as part of the herd as well.
When we talk about a horse “valuing” safety, what does that mean? Well, simply put, it means that if a horse doesn’t feel safe, he’s not going to be interested in doing much with you. Here are the four main things that horses value:
– Food & Procreation
The values tend to follow that order as well. Now, that doesn’t mean that some horses don’t have stronger play drives than others, or that food motivation can vary from horse to horse. Think of it this way:
Until a horse feels safe, he isn’t likely to do anything – relax, sleep, eat, etc. If he’s in the pasture and he senses danger, you can be sure that that’s going to be his focus until he’s sure it’s gone. Once he feels safe, he can begin to feel comfortable. Only when he’s safe and comfortable will he play. This means both frolicking and herd dominance games, which dictate… food! When he gets to eat, how much he gets to eat, and who needs to eat before it’s his turn.
What does this have to do with herdbound horses? A horse is herdbound when he equates the herd with safety so strongly that the idea of leaving the herd makes him uncomfortable. Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, so to speak. Let’s say you want to go out for a nice, leisurely trail ride. To you, that’s not stressful at all. But to a herdbound horse, he’s being taken away from his herd (his safety zone), loaded into a metal cage on wheels, and unloaded in a foreign environment. It’s no surprise that he’d rather be with his herd.
So how do we overcome this tendency? First, we need to demonstrate to the horse that you – yes, you – are the leader, and that you will keep him safe. Think of it in terms of a bond. It’s in the horse’s nature to bond and synchronize mentally, emotionally and physically with his herd. Specifically with the herd leader. It’s up to you to prove that you’re the herd leader. That’s where playing, and winning, the Seven Games comes in.
A leader shows that they have a plan. When you’re playing the Seven Games, don’t just play them for the sake of playing them. Demonstrate your leadership qualities by being progressive and preparing your horse. If you’re playing the same version of the Friendly Game that you were playing five months ago, you aren’t being progressive, and you aren’t proving to your horse that you have a plan.
Incorporating patterns is a great way to demonstrate your skill, your creativity, and your leadership capabilities. You learn to be particular and purposeful – like a true leader. Horses respond to that.
Whenever you’re playing with your horse, both on the ground and in the saddle, focus on getting your horse to synchronize with you. The more he bonds with you as he would his herd leader, the more he will overcome his innate self-preservation tendencies (as in, “I’m only safe when I’m surrounded by my mother and my herd! I need to go there now!”), which is the first step to overcoming herdbound behavior.
Think of it this way: you need to become such a good leader that your horse chooses to leave the herd for you.
Finally, try not to get frustrated when your horse would rather huddle with his herd. Although it may not seem like it, a horse with herdbound tendencies can actually be a big positive for you! Yes, really. After all, if your horse seems to place a lot of importance on bond and safety, it just presents you with a great opportunity to develop and hone your leadership skills. Plenty of horses can get along just fine without the herd, and while that makes herdbound behavior a non-issue, it can also indicate that it’ll take much, much more work on your part to convince that horse to bond with you! Herdbound horses can be a blessing in disguise if you know how to truly bring out the best in them.
You’ve often heard me say that “there’s nothing you can’t do when your horse becomes a part of you.” This is a prime example of that philosophy. With a herdbound horse, it’s up to us to win the Seven Games, become a leader, and encourage the horse to develop a strong bond – true unity – with us. Once that happens, he truly will be a part of you.
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Pat Parelli, coiner of the term “natural horsemanship”, founded his program based on a foundation of love, language, and leadership. Parelli Natural Horsemanship allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success with their at-home educational program. Together with his wife Linda, Pat has spread PNH across the globe with campuses in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Newly launched in 2011, parelliconnect.com provides an online social forum packed with training tools, step-by-step to do lists, video and more. Log on today for your FREE 30-day trial at www.parelliconnect.com.